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Celebrating 100 years of ‘On, Wisconsin!’

October 14, 2009 By Gwen Evans

It is 32 bars of hummable, toe-tapping Badger spirit and it turns 100 years old this year. Yes, the song “On, Wisconsin!” has hit the century mark and gives no sign of slowing down or unclenching its hold on the hearts of all who love it.

Over the years, it has been ranked among the best college fight songs. Countless high schools and at least 18 colleges have adopted “On, Wisconsin!” as their own — with their own lyrics, of course. The “March King” himself, John Philip Sousa, called it “the finest college marching song ever written” and “the most stirring, enthusiastic college melody I have ever heard.”

“On, Wisconsin!” was written by William T. Purdy (music) and Carl Beck (lyrics), who were roommates in a Chicago rooming house. Purdy had intended to enter his composition in a contest offering a $100 prize for a new song for the University of Minnesota (gasp!). Beck, who had attended Wisconsin from 1908–09, wrote new lyrics after hearing the melody and convinced Purdy to abandon his Minnesota plan. The rest is history.

The fact that the song was originally intended for Minnesota is ironic, considering that the Badgers and Gophers have met consecutively since 1890, which is the longest-running rivalry in all of college football.

Because the song is such a cultural icon, the melody is ripe for off-label use. The Cub Scouts used it to encourage fitness and Two Rivers, Wis., wrote a ditty to defend its claim as the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. For those so inclined, there is even a version that skewers FORTRAN computer programs.

It wouldn’t be right to let the anniversary slip past, so a number of campus events and activities will celebrate and honor “On, Wisconsin!”

UW–Madison Libraries has put together a fascinating Web site on all things “On, Wisconsin!” with sections on history, photos, biographies of the composers, different lyrics, various recordings (the earliest posted is from 1915), different versions of the song and links to other resources.

“On, Wisconsin!” has been performed at nearly every athletic event and a good share of nonathletic events since its introduction.

Image: courtesy University Archives

The Marching Band, under the direction of Mike Leckrone, will present a special halftime show celebrating the centennial of “On, Wisconsin!” at the homecoming game against Iowa, Oct. 17.

The Wisconsin Alumni Association has designed a T-shirt for the anniversary as part of its Red Shirt program. The shirt is printed with the song lyrics and sales benefit need-based financial aid for students.

Doctoral music composition student Jerry Hui is preparing an arrangement of the song, which will be premiered by the UW–Madison Concert Choir later this semester.

A 30-minute documentary is in production and will air on the Big Ten Network later this fall. It will cover the song’s history, lore and what it means to alumni.